A Communicable Itch- PolitiKOS at The Kraine
This weekend I went to check out PolitiKOS at Horse Trade’s Kraine Theatre in New York. This political theatre festival featured a play of mine, a short called “Coursing Upstream,” which I wrote after being inspired by the story of the New Jersey man whose mother is a Yanomami tribeswoman, although he grew up with his dad, an anthropologist who fell in love while researching the customs of the Yanomami. My play is about the dad’s decision to wed and start a family with a woman who is more comfortable hunting for scorpions in the jungle than squeezing papayas at the Parsippany Pathmark, and I really enjoyed working with director Christina Roussos and actors Jarel Davidow and Imran Sheikh on the play. Rehearsal was all about hashing out the questions in the play, figuring out our own thoughts on the ethics of bedding one’s research subject, of cutting off one’s children from your own culture, or of their mother’s culture, since the cultures are in such conflict as to be unable to exist in one body without prejudice or preference. I’d work with this crew any day of the week on any project basically.
The program of plays was curated by Israela Margalit, and the line-up reflected her thoughtful, dedicated approach. Aside from my own work, which I always like because I try to write what I want to see on stage, I particularly loved Dominique Morriseau’s monologue, “Jezelle the Gazelle,” from the perspective of a young girl running the biggest race of her life, which devastatingly turns out to be life or death. The engagement between Dominique Fishback, who played the title character, and the audience was sweet and delicious, like ripe fruit, like all the essence of childhood and innocence and hide and seek and first kisses and nicknames for neighborhood friends. It twists rather hard when her friends running the race with her are mistaken by police for other kids who were running from the scene of a crime, and the lovely feelings of nostalgia I had were replaced with a tight, hard, knot in my stomach. “Assignment: Washington,” by Arthur Kopit, a seriously funny play, was about a vampire who, with the help of his a high-profile psychiatrist, discovers that the government officials who he takes for victims are zombies. Larry Powell played the reluctant, but goofy vampire, and Jennifer Dorr White was his in-over-her-head psychiatrist.
The final performance of the night was a piece from The Living Theatre. I first experienced the Living Theatre on a pier on the West Side in 1992. In an odd turn of events, it turns out that a good friend of mine now was then part of that group, and performed in the rainy evening performance way back when. The play was about serious ideas at the same time as it was ridiculous in its presentation and ended with all of us, audience included, marching around carrying picket signs and chanting slogans while the whole procession was lit by theatre floods illegally plugged into a City lamppost. What I felt so clearly at the time was that as we all marched around in the jerry rigged light, audience and performers together, there was no one left to watch. We were all in it together. The light that lit our parade created a wall between us and the darkness, but the darkness was so real. We fended off the realm of darkness that encircled us with stolen light. I remembered that, my first experience with experimental theatre, when the Living Theatre began to take the stage.
The performers walked with heavy steps, stiff movements. They plodded onto the creaking floorboards. In the ensuing moments, each actor proceeded to have a difficult and overwhelming physical experience. These experiences appeared to be inspired by dread, foreboding, melancholy, some kind of witnessed horror perhaps. Adding a sense of the ridiculous to their dread there emerged among them some kind of communicable itch. The serious idea of witnessing, internalizing, and feeling paralyzed by the horror that we glimpse from afar every day of our cushy lives was countered by the absurdity of this itch. They scratched at themselves, pulled their hair, and the phrase “rend their garments” occurred to me. These actors were in agony, their faces contorted with grief, pain, the unbelievable terror of living in fear of death, or perhaps helplessness in the face of the death of others. They moaned, groaned, screamed. They lamented in wordless noises that grew louder until the room echoed with the sound of it.
Each actor was independently experiencing this gruesomeness, there was no communication between them, no acknowledgement of shared pain. They didn’t seem aware of each other at all. As I watched, the actors wordless, their movements and struggles growing more acute, I realized quite suddenly that I felt nothing. I felt no connection to any actor, to any feeling they were feeling. I was merely witnessing their agony from afar, from my cushy seat in the penultimate row.
The piece had all the frames of theatrical experimental high art. But like so much conceptual work, it seemed to be more interested in communicating an experience, and asked me to revere that communication, that it did in actually being present with me. There were no questions asked, there was no response required from the audience other than to witness the experience that was being experienced in front of us. No picket signs or song sheets were handed out, the need to scratch an unnamed itch did not reach me in my chair.
I was watching, not experiencing, I was listening, but there was nothing for me to hear. The actors continued, focused in on their own world, on communicating out from their own insides, while I sat in the circle of darkness. They were still having this whole thing happen to them, this whole thing that came out of each individual, this same thing wherein they were not even interacting with one another, and definitely not interacting with the audience. They were not sharing an experience with us, or a story with us, or giving us any context other than the atheist life void in which so much of contemporary theatre exists.
And as I was thinking these thoughts they were still lamenting, still throwing themselves about, while my thoughts kept moving, and my feelings refused to feel. There in the dark, outside of the circle of light, I felt nothing for these groaning people, nothing for their serious ideas, I only felt what surely they did not intend: the ridiculous. (If they did intend that, then brava, for real, great job, nailed it.)
I go to theatre with an open heart. As a rule, I come to theatre ready to be with the artists on stage, ready to hear what they have to say, to feel their story. I want nothing more than the work to fill my heart and mind. I came to this show the same way, even more so because my own art work was part of it. I felt like we were all on the same team, and I was even a little floored that my play was on the same program as the storied Living Theatre. I say all that by way of saying that what happened next was outside of my control.
I started to laugh. I knew I wasn’t supposed to laugh, but it was just so funny to have all these people on stage experiencing something that conveyed to me no meaning, no feeling, only the absurd— absurd that they were doing, absurd that I was watching. My laughter grew. Tears welled up and over and ran my mascara down my cheeks. My shoulders shook, I held my hand over my mouth and in retaliation my nose let loose a series of snorting laughs. By now the performers were in the throes of gruesome deaths, and surely no one could have heard my uncontrollable guffaws. Except for the guy behind me, who was also laughing. And a woman in the row ahead of me, who turned around and smiled. But other people glared at me, and I felt self-conscious that I was having the wrong experience. Still, I could not stop laughing.
In thinking further about this wrong experience, I have a greater understanding of what the deal is when I hear about great numbers of people who have been killed in places much further away that the stage and feel… bad about that, but not much in my heart, not that sharp pain of grief. Conversely, when I hear about one child killed or orphaned or one man shot down, or one woman or grandma killed or made ill, I can find myself devastated, by one death, where thousands do not touch my heart. The deaths of individual strangers stay painful. Every time I hear the agony of a mother’s grief in her radio broadcasted voice, I can’t handle my emotional reaction. I’m not the only person for whom this is a real phenomenon.
Without context, without individuality, without story, the mass death on stage did not reach me. Instead it was like watching a series of prat falls, or funniest home videos, or slips on banana peels. The horror that was being honestly experienced and portrayed by people not 50 feet from where I sat was so much hijinks to me. I am a human being who needs story, and context, even if I have to provide it for myself. And in this instance, within the frame of the theatre space, the frame of the stage, my awareness of Strasberg acting method and Bogart’s Viewpoints techniques, I felt the work they put in, and I respect that. But I have no reverence in theatre. Theatre is not my church, it is my home, and at home, I permit myself to react naturally.
So I didn’t stop myself from laughing.